In pro sports, the relationship between coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider is a rare and wonderful thing. Only one guy, ex-CEO Tod Leiweke, saw it coming.
In describing Pete Carroll Friday, John Schneider twice used the phrase, “low ego.” As in: “The football stuff is very obvious for everybody. What everybody doesn’t see is the low ego and the passion he has for the game.”
In contrast, a common phrase used by outsiders in describing Carroll’s style is “rah-rah,” a short-hand cliche that is almost always a pejorative, because it implies that he’s covering up with attention-getting enthusiasm an absence of substance.
The disparity between the descriptions is at the heart of what should be astonishment at the news of Carroll’s three-year contract extension — astonishment, at least, if you were around on Jan. 10, 2010, when Carroll was hired away after seven highly successful seasons at USC and introduced as the Seahawks’ third coach in three tumultuous years.
At that moment, almost no Seahawks fan nor media member in Seattle foresaw what has come to pass. Many, especially the purple-hued, were contemptuous because of the success of Carroll’s insufferable Trojans — seven consecutive Pac-10 titles and two national championships.
Rah-rah was about the nicest thing said about Carroll that day. But low-ego was the most important phrase Friday because it helped explain the Super Bowl success from the guy whose career would have been doomed had Carroll developed an overbearing ego common among those in his craft.
The coach-GM relationship is the single most critical aspect of a football franchise — and potentially the most volatile. Particularly since Carroll chose Schneider from a list of four provided by the Seahawks (See: Story behind Seahawks’ hire of Carroll), Schneider could have been cowed or marginalized, given the difference in ages and professional statures.
Instead, the two reinvented how a front office can function well. Please study this quote from Carroll Friday:
“I felt like we had an opportunity to demonstrate to professional sports how powerful and how crucial this relationship is. I hope that someday that somebody will look back and see John as the most powerful, most dominant general manager in professional sports. Someday, we’ll look back and have that chance to make that statement.
“It has come with real design. I wanted to help John be the best he could possibly be. He is committed to try and help me be the best I can possibly be. With that union, we put this organization in motion and we’re really proud to tell you that, and proud to show you that we have been able to do that together. His uniqueness, his creativity, his work ethic, his grit, everything that he brings is hopefully brought to the front where you guys can see the tremendous work that he’s done.”
I can’t prove it, but I’m willing to wager a pitcher of craft brew that such an expression has never been uttered in the modern history of American professional sports. Coaches and GMs, by dint of personalities as well as the competitive nature of any high-pressure business, just don’t work like that.
All a Seattle sports fan has to do is look across the figurative street at the Mariners to see how not to do it. The decisions last year by manager Eric Wedge to quit in anger, then torpedo the franchise with a brutal, on-the-record takedown in the Seattle Times, underscored the years-long dysfunction that has cut in half the the club’s attendance and made them a civic punchline.
But don’t think the ineffectiveness is confined to the Mariners. A similar kind of split in the Seahawks was why Carroll was hired, and why he was given limited freedom to choose Schneider.
At the time of Carroll’s hire, then-CEO Tod Leiweke explained what had gone wrong after the Seahawks’ first appearance in the Super Bowl in 2006. GM Tim Ruskell and coach Mike Holmgren began to feud. Holmgren was eased out after 2008, Ruskell was fired in December 2009, and Jim Mora, Holmgren’s successor, was fired a month later after a single season.
Leiweke commissioned an audit following the firing of GM Tim Ruskell that he said revealed a “series of progressive revelations.” One of the key disclosures of the audit, according to one source familiar with its content, was the split among players and employees hired by Holmgren, and ones hired by Ruskell.
“The biggest thing,” the source said, “was we had Mike guys and Tim guys.”
Since the Sunni and Shiite leaders have departed, Leiweke is now free to identify the motivation behind his surprise firing of Mora after a single season.
“We had a need for a clean slate,” he said. “Keeping Jim for a second year was the path of least resistance. We had to do something bold.”
The boldness was hiring Carroll, whose record as an NFL coach (33-31) was about the same as Mora’s in Atlanta and Seattle (31-33). But he had the advantage of his time at USC to refine exactly what would work to extract premium performance out of athletes in a way that would be fulfilling at the time — and generate eagerness to repeat it.
“There was a lot of talk that was out there about why I would come back from college coaching, and all of the things that I had to prove,” Carroll said Friday. “None of that was right. The idea was that we had found a way to operate and run a club, and now we could do it on the most challenging, compelling stage possible. Let’s go ahead and go for it. I was really anxious to see how it would hit and how it would take hold.”
Critics who said Carroll’s methods were good in college, but would fail in the pros, missed a critical point: Regardless of age or wealth, human nature is the same. Of course, there are differences in people, but those differences are handled in tactical adjustments, not in a strategy that appeals to the highest passions and instincts in any individual driven to succeed.
It’s hard to get a voluble guy like Carroll to offer clarity in a single sentence. But as befits one who probably became the highest paid coach/manager in American sports history, he succeeded Friday.
“I really wanted to prove,” he said, “that we had come to a way that handled the people in a manner that would allow them to be at their best.”
A simple expression. All it took was four years and a resounding Super Bowl win to make it obvious to the rest of us.